If Gabriela Ochoa had known what would happen to her down by the Táchira River that divides Venezuela and Colombia, she never would have crossed.
But her family was desperate.
With government subsidized food growing scarcer and more expensive, Ochoa didn’t even bother seeking government aid. Instead, after a short stint living with her mother, with whom she had a troubled relationship, she set her sights on moving to Colombia, where people advised she might find work and a friend had offered to host her.
Ochoa and her children made it to the border bridge in early April, after hours of hitchhiking and walking from her hometown, the coastal city of Puerto Cabello — more than 450 miles (730 km) from the border. But the Colombian government had already closed all checkpoints to avoid the spread of the novel coronavirus in mid-March.
On the first day, Ochoa said she begged people on their way to the trocha to help her cross, with no luck. That night, she slept on the street with her children, their stomachs roaring with hunger. By the end of the second day, as the sky darkened, a young man finally offered to help her, she said.
As they inched closer to the water, a group of men emerged from the bushes, their heads covered by hoodies.
“They had guns, knives, all kinds of things,” Ochoa recalled. The men grabbed her children and threatened to take them away if she didn’t pay them to cross.
“I thought they were going to kill me and the children,” she said. In tears, Ochoa told them she didn’t have any money and begged them to let them across the river. The men dragged her behind a bush and raped her.
“It was horrible,” Ochoa said. “Thank God they didn’t hurt the kids.”
Since the start of the pandemic, humanitarian organizations say there has been a marked increase in gender-based violence along the border regions. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports a 7% increase in the number of women staying in their three shelters in Cúcuta devoted to women victims of sexual violence, trafficking and single mothers, compared to the same period in 2019 (from April to August). Of the 257 women that UNHCR supported, the agency says nearly half had experienced gender-based violence.
What’s driving Venezuelans to cross the border hasn’t changed, said Lucía Hernández, a lawyer with the international organization Women’s Link Worldwide. These include fear of violence, financial strain, and scant basic services due to the faltering economy. But border closures “doom migrants to irregular crossings.”
A treacherous path
More than 5,000 people are currently crossing in both directions through trochas daily, according to FundaRedes, a Venezuelan NGO monitoring human rights abuses in the border regions.
“[Illegal armed] groups control the territory…They threaten women’s integrity, often with the goal of sex trafficking or forced labor,” said Javier Tarazona, director of FundaRedes. “Covid-19 has made the border context more oppressive, more violent.”
Colombia’s secretary of borders and cooperation in Norte de Santander, Victor Bautista, says the government was aware of the risk of exposing civilians to more violence by closing the border, but it didn’t expect that the closure would last so long.
“Those most vulnerable are more exposed to human trafficking, abuse, sexual exploitation,” he said.
When Ochoa finally made it to the Colombian side of the river, it was already dark. Her three children wouldn’t stop crying. She was too afraid to go to the police and report what had happened to her. The men threatened to kill her if she told anyone, she said, and she couldn’t accurately describe the men’s faces. Even if she could describe the men, she explains, she worried the authorities might deport her for being undocumented.
“I’m alone here,” she said. “I have no one to defend me.”
Lack of legal status deters many Venezuelan and foreign women from seeking justice in Colombia. When women do report sexual violence and crimes committed at the border, these crimes are rarely investigated and prosecuted, according to local women’s organizations.
In some cases, when abuses take place by the river, police say they cannot investigate a crime outside of Colombian territory. Many women do not trust law enforcement institutions, because members of the police and armed forces are often perpetrators themselves, several organizations and migrant women told CNN.
“When migrant women are abused, who do they turn to?” asked Adriana Pérez, director of the Gender Observatory in Cúcuta. “Generally they’re told to go to the police…but what happens when it’s a police officer who is abusing them? Or if it’s armed groups, under the knowledge of the police?”
“These are not acts that are only being committed by illegal armed groups,” she added. “And that’s why it’s so complex to address them, because institutional agents seem to be complicit.”
The Cúcuta police told the Fuller Project they have only received one report of sexual violence since the pandemic border closure in mid-March, and are not aware of any cases involving law enforcement agents. Colombian authorities said they are taking measures to strengthen standards for reporting and identifying sexual and gender-based crimes. It’s time to move from perception to formal complaints,” Bautista said.
Colombian military authorities did not respond to the Fuller Project’s request for comment.
Since April, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) says the organization has helped 58 Venezuelan women in Cúcuta offering health care resources and other emergency services, while they have another 196 on the waitlist for individual psychological support.
There has been an increase in physical and psychological violence happening within families—likely women living with their abusers—since April, as well as women being psychologically harassed and threatened by their landlords, who were taking advantage of their inability to pay rent during the pandemic, according to the IRC.
Safe housing during Covid-19 is one of the key concerns for migrant women. In Ochoa’s case, the friend who had agreed to host her in Cúcuta could no longer do so: she had been evicted.
With nowhere else to turn, Ochoa slept on the street with her three children. After three days, a Colombian woman who saw Ochoa begging on the street took them home and allowed them to temporarily stay in a small room in the back of the house.
After three months of living with the Colombian woman and her family, they asked her to leave, she says. She found a shack with plastic tarps as walls in a slum outside Cúcuta, crowded with other Venezuelan migrants like her. The precarious construction has no power and no plumbing. She struggles to pay the rent—around $40 per month.
The cost of turning back
Ochoa hasn’t been able to find a stable job since moving to Colombia seven months ago, she says. Instead, she roams the streets of Cúcuta begging for money with her children, worrying that they could contract Covid-19. Most days she makes just enough to feed her children.
Ochoa says that despite the precarious situation in Colombia, she’s not going home to Venezuela any time soon. “At least here we have food and a place to stay,” she said.
Top image: Getty/CNN Photo Illustration by Will Mullery